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Ranking the most successful clubs in AFL/VFL history

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Roar Rookie
11th July, 2019
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4044 Reads

Last year, I wrote an article, A look at the most dominant eras in VFL/AFL history, which, as the title implies, looked at which VFL/AFL clubs have enjoyed the best eras spanning five to eight years.

Such dynasties are invariably built on the back of a club boasting an amazingly talented playing group, usually accompanied by a true master coach at the helm.

While it’s simply not possible for a club to maintain such a reign of dominance for decades on end, I’ve been wondering which club has been the most successful across its entire VFL/AFL history. The big question: How do you rank overall, long-term success?

I’m sure many people will say “That’s easy! Look at which club has won the most premierships!”

Well, it sounds like a good place to start:

Total premierships

Rank Club Premierships
1 Carlton 16
2 Essendon 16*
3 Collingwood 15
4 Hawthorn 13
5 Melbourne 12
6 Richmond 11
7 Geelong 9
8 Fitzroy 8
9 North Melb. 4
10 West Coast 4
11 South Melb. 3
12 Brisbane 3
13 Sydney 2
14 Adelaide 2
15 F’scray/WB 2
16 St Kilda 1
17 Port Adel. 1
18 Fremantle 0
19 GWS Giants 0
20 Gold Coast 0
21 University 0

*It’s a little known fact that there have been two VFL/AFL seasons in which no grand final was played. These were the inaugural season of 1897, and also the 1924 season. In both of those seasons, a round-robin finals series was contested with no grand final being played. Essendon was awarded the premiership on both occasions. So although Essendon has officially earned 16 premierships, they have actually won only 14 grand finals.

So Carlton and Essendon have won the most premierships with 16 each, followed by Collingwood with 15 and then Hawthorn with 13.

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So does that mean they have been the most successful clubs in VFL/AFL history? Not so fast. You have to take into account that Hawthorn didn’t enter the competition until 1925, whereas Essendon, Carlton, and Collingwood have been there since 1897. Those foundation members have had 28 more years to win more premierships than Hawthorn.

So if we are looking at premierships as a gauge, we clearly need to look at premiership strike rate – flags won per year.

Premiership win rate

Rank Club Entered Comp Years Prem Prem% Prem/10 Yrs
1 Hawthorn 1925 94 13 13.83% 1.38
3 Essendon 1897 120 16 13.33% 1.33
2 Carlton 1897 122 16 13.11% 1.31
4 West Coast 1987 32 4 12.50% 1.25
5 Collingwood 1897 122 15 12.30% 1.23
7 Melbourne 1897 119 12 10.08% 1.01
6 Richmond 1908 111 11 9.91% 0.99
8 Brisbane 1987 32 3 9.38% 0.94
9 Fitzroy 1897 100 8 8.00% 0.80
10 Geelong 1897 119 9 7.56% 0.76
11 Adelaide 1991 28 2 7.14% 0.71
12 Sydney 1982 37 2 5.41% 0.54
13 Port Adel. 1997 22 1 4.55% 0.45
14 North Melb. 1925 94 4 4.26% 0.43
15 South Melb. 1897 83 3 3.61% 0.36
16 F’scray/WB 1925 94 2 2.13% 0.21
17 St Kilda 1897 120 1 0.83% 0.08
18 Fremantle 1995 24 0 0.00% 0.00
19 GWS Giants 2012 7 0 0.00% 0.00
20 Gold Coast 2011 8 0 0.00% 0.00
21 University 1908 7 0 0.00% 0.00

Now we see a fairer picture, Hawthorn have actually won the most premierships per season with a 13.8 per cent strike rate – or 1.38 per ten years. Carlton and Essendon are ranked second and third respectively, and we see that West Coast has displaced Collingwood in the top four with its 12.5 per cent strike rate.

So does this mean Hawthorn are actually the most successful VFL/AFL club of all-time? Again, not so fast. As mentioned, bags of flags can be gathered on the back of two or three dominant dynasties. If we are going to look at how good a club has been at key times across its history, then we also need to look at how bad it’s been.

Wooden spoons
We can look at the opposite to winning a premiership – ‘winning’ the dreaded wooden spoon.

Rank Club Comp Years Wooden Spoons WS/Season%
1 Adelaide 28 0 0.00%
2 Port Adel. 22 0 0.00%
3 Collingwood 122 2 1.64%
4 West Coast 32 1 3.13%
5 Carlton 122 5 4.10%
6 Essendon 120 5 4.17%
8 Fremantle 24 1 4.17%
7 Geelong 119 5 4.20%
9 F’scray/WB 94 4 4.26%
10 Richmond 111 6 5.41%
11 Brisbane 32 2 6.25%
12 Fitzroy 100 8 8.00%
13 Sydney 37 3 8.11%
14 South Melb. 83 8 9.64%
15 Melbourne 119 12 10.08%
16 Hawthorn 94 11 11.70%
17 Gold Coast 8 1 12.50%
18 North Melb. 94 13 13.83%
19 St Kilda 120 27 22.50%
20 GWS Giants 7 2 28.57%
21 University 7 4 57.14%
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All of a sudden, Hawthorn go from being ranked first to 16th due to finishing last 11 times in its 94-year history – 11.7per cent of the time.

At the top of this table, we learn that only two clubs have never finished last – the two South Australian clubs. We also see that, remarkably, Collingwood has finished last just twice in its 122-year history and is ranked third. In a way that’s more impressive than the younger Adelaide clubs’ clean-sheet but we can’t assume that one of them will get spooned anytime soon, so they certainly deserve their spots at the top of this table.

At the bottom, the defunct University won the wooden spoon more often than not during its short-lived existence, and GWS has received two in its seven completed seasons to date. But the most damning spoon record appears is St Kilda with a whopping 27 – finishing last about one in every five seasons.

St Kilda Saints look sad after losing

(AAP Image/Joe Castro)

Minor premierships
So we’ve looked at premierships and wooden spoons, but there is another award for clubs (they do actually receive a small trophy) who finish on top of the ladder after the regular season. Many pundits don’t rate finishing as minor premier very highly since it’s an award dished out before any finals have even been contested. Still, it would be remiss of me to not include them as an official ranking factor.

Rank Club Comp Years Minor Premiers Season%
1 Collingwood 122 19 15.57%
3 Essendon 120 17 14.17%
2 Carlton 122 17 13.93%
4 Port Adel. 22 3 13.64%
5 Geelong 119 13 10.92%
6 Hawthorn 94 9 9.57%
7 West Coast 32 3 9.38%
8 Sydney 37 3 8.11%
9 Richmond 111 9 8.11%
10 Melbourne 119 9 7.56%
12 South Melb. 83 6 7.23%
11 Adelaide 28 2 7.14%
13 North Melb. 94 4 4.26%
14 Fremantle 24 1 4.17%
15 Fitzroy 100 4 4.00%
16 St Kilda 120 3 2.50%
17 GWS Giants 7 0 0.00%
18 Brisbane 32 0 0.00%
19 F’scray/WB 94 0 0.00%
20 Gold Coast 8 0 0.00%
21 University 7 0 0.00%

So Collingwood have been minor premiers the most times with 19, at a league-high 15.6 per cent clip. Carlton and Essendon are ranked second and third.

At the other end of the scale, we see that Footscray/Western Bulldogs have never been minor premiers in any of their 94 seasons. They, along with Brisbane, are the only two clubs to have won a grand final but never the minor premiership. Conversely, Fremantle is the only club to have been minor premier (once in 2015) but never the actual premier.

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Dockers coach Ross Lyon looking glum

(AAP Image/Tony McDonough)

Average finishing position
Another measure is to rank clubs by their average finishing ladder position:

Rank Club Av.Finish Position
1 Collingwood 4.8
2 Carlton 5.4
3 Geelong 5.6
4 Essendon 5.8
5 West Coast 6.6
6 Richmond 6.9
7 South Melb. 7.1
8 Fitzroy 7.1
9 Sydney 7.2
10 Hawthorn 7.3
11 Melbourne 7.4
12 Adelaide 7.6
13 North Melb. 7.8
14 Port Adel. 8.2
15 F’scray/WB 8.1
16 St Kilda 8.3
17 University 8.4
18 Fremantle 10.5
19 Brisbane 10.9
20 GWS 11.1
21 Gold Coast 15.6

Collingwood come out on top quite clearly here with an average finishing ladder position of 4.8, followed by Carlton (5.4), Geelong (5.6), and Essendon (5.8). If we look to the bottom, we see that Gold Coast (15.6) is well and truly last.

Overall home win-rate
Perhaps an even better measure of overall success is winning percentage of all matches played in a club’s history. Let’s begin with the overall rate when playing as the designated home side:

Rank Club H Games H Wins H Draws H Losses H Win%
1 West Coast 372 260 2 110 69.90%
2 Collingwood 1259 858 10 391 68.10%
3 Adelaide 320 215 0 105 67.20%
4 Geelong 1228 804 12 412 65.50%
5 Carlton 1253 806 18 429 64.30%
6 Essendon 1235 779 18 438 63.10%
7 Port Adel. 254 156 2 96 61.40%
8 Sydney 448 263 2 183 58.70%
9 Fremantle 272 158 0 114 58.10%
10 Richmond 1123 647 13 463 57.60%
11 Hawthorn 995 559 5 431 56.20%
12 South Melb. 788 429 8 351 54.40%
13 F’scray/WB 947 508 14 425 53.60%
14 Fitzroy 959 508 14 437 53.00%
15 Brisbane 372 195 4 173 52.40%
16 Melbourne 1206 631 9 566 52.30%
17 GWS Giants 79 41 1 37 51.90%
18 North Melb. 964 484 13 467 50.20%
19 St Kilda 1176 567 13 596 48.20%
20 Gold Coast 94 31 1 62 33.00%
21 University 63 15 1 47 23.80%

As can be seen, West Coast (69.9%) have performed better at home than any other club. Next best is Collingwood (68.1%), followed by Adelaide (67.2%), and Geelong (65.5%).

At the other end of the table we see that three clubs have actually recorded a negative overall win percentage at home – St Kilda, Gold Coast, and University. This is a tell-tale a sign of clubs whose histories consist mostly of gloomy times. North Melbourne barely scrape into positive territory and are also well below average by this measure.

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(AAP Image/Darren England)

Overall away win-rate
Now let’s look at how clubs have performed while playing away:

Rank Club A Games A Wins A Draws A Losses A Win%
1 Collingwood 1274 671 18 585 52.70%
2 Carlton 1238 617 16 605 49.80%
3 Essendon 1221 595 17 609 48.70%
4 Richmond 1132 498 9 625 44.00%
5 Sydney 412 181 6 225 43.90%
6 West Coast 382 165 5 212 43.20%
7 Geelong 1201 514 11 676 42.80%
8 Hawthorn 981 413 7 561 42.10%
9 Port Adel. 253 104 3 146 41.10%
10 Adelaide 329 135 2 192 41.00%
11 North Melb. 1000 389 5 606 38.90%
12 Melbourne 1193 454 12 727 38.10%
13 Fitzroy 969 361 11 597 37.30%
14 South Melb. 782 287 8 487 36.70%
15 F’scray/WB 991 362 8 621 36.50%
16 GWS Giants 82 25 2 55 30.50%
17 Fremantle 271 82 1 188 30.30%
18 St Kilda 1196 352 14 830 29.40%
19 Brisbane 355 103 4 248 29.00%
20 University 63 12 1 50 19.00%
21 Gold Coast 82 13 0 69 15.90%

Collingwood (52.7%) easily takes the cake here – it is also the only club to have recorded a positive win percentage when playing away. A remarkable effort and certainly helped a great deal by the support the club receives from its army of fans not just all around Melbourne and Victoria, but all around the nation.

In second place, another club with a prodigious supporter-base, Carlton (49.8%), have come very close to having a 50/50 away record, as have Essendon (48.7%). Rounding out the Melbourne-based powerhouse clubs in fourth place, Richmond (44.0%) has a relatively poor away record compared to its ‘big four’ peers.

At the bottom of the table we see that, in a damning sign, Gold Coast’s away record (15.9%) after 82 matches is even worse than University’s (19.0%).

Making the finals
Another pretty obvious measure springs to mind: finals. Making the finals (or not) is clearly a good indicator of a club’s success.

Rank Club Made Finals Made Finals%
1 West Coast 23/32 71.88%
2 Collingwood 81/122 66.39%
3 Sydney 22/37 59.46%
4 Carlton 68/122 55.74%
6 Essendon 65/119 54.62%
5 Adelaide 15/28 53.57%
7 Geelong 57/119 47.90%
8 Port Adel. 10/22 45.45%
9 GWS Giants 3/7 42.86%
10 Hawthorn 35/94 37.23%
11 Richmond 39/111 35.14%
12 North Melb. 32/94 34.04%
13 Melbourne 39/119 32.77%
14 Brisbane 10/32 31.25%
15 Fremantle 7/24 29.17%
16 Fitzroy 29/100 29.00%
17 F’scray/WB 26/94 27.66%
18 South Melb. 22/83 26.51%
19 St Kilda 26/119 21.85%
20 Gold Coast 0/8 0.00%
21 University 0/7 0.00%
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This time West Coast clearly tops the table having made the finals 23 times in 32 years – at a very impressive 71.88 per cent. Next best is Collingwood at 81/122 (66.39%).

There is a quite a bit of daylight between the Pies and third-ranked Sydney with 22/37 (59.46%). Only six clubs have made the finals more often than not – West Coast, Collingwood, Sydney, Carlton, Adelaide, and Essendon.

At the other end of the table we see that the defunct University never played finals in its brief seven-year history, nor has Gold Coast in what, as mentioned earlier, has been a very disappointing start to its existence.

(Photo by Will Russell/AFL Photos/via Getty Images )

Finals win-rate
Now, making the finals is one thing, but winning them is more important.

Rank Club Finals Matches Finals W%
1 Brisbane 25 68.00%
2 Hawthorn 86 61.63%
3 Melbourne 87 58.62%
4 Richmond 86 58.14%
5 Fitzroy 59 57.63%
6 Essendon 130 53.08%
7 Adelaide 36 50.00%
8 West Coast 52 48.08%
9 Port Adel. 23 47.83%
10 Carlton 139 46.76%
11 Sydney 48 45.83%
12 North Melb. 75 45.33%
13 South Melb. 41 43.90%
14 Geelong 119 43.70%
15 Collingwood 181 43.09%
16 GWS Giants 7 42.86%
17 St Kilda 52 40.38%
18 Fremantle 15 40.00%
19 F’scray/WB 49 36.73%
20 Gold Coast 0 0.00%
21 University 0 0.00%

Brisbane are the clear chart-toppers in this one, winning 68 per cent of their 25 finals. They’re followed by Hawthorn (61.63%), Melbourne (58.62%), and Richmond (58.14%). We see that Fitzroy (57.63%), at fifth, also had a very good record in finals.

The big fall from grace by this ranking system is Collingwood. We saw earlier the Magpies have qualified for the finals almost seven times per ten seasons in their history, but we see here they’ve won only 43.09 per cent of their 181 post-season matches.

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Reaching the grand final
Let’s look at how often clubs manage to contest the grand final (draws not counted):

Rank Club Comp Years Made GF GF/10 Yrs
1 Collingwood 122 42 3.44
2 Carlton 122 29 2.38
3 Essendon 120 28 2.33
4 West Coast 32 7 2.19
5 Richmond 111 23 2.07
6 Hawthorn 94 19 2.02
7 Sydney 37 6 1.62
8 Geelong 119 18 1.51
9 Melbourne 119 17 1.43
11 South Melb. 83 11 1.33
10 Fitzroy 100 13 1.30
12 Brisbane 32 4 1.25
13 Adelaide 28 3 1.07
14 North Melb. 94 9 0.96
15 Port Adel. 22 2 0.91
16 St Kilda 120 7 0.58
17 Fremantle 24 1 0.42
18 F’scray/WB 94 3 0.32
19 GWS Giants 7 0 0.00
20 Gold Coast 8 0 0.00
21 University 7 0 0.00

We see that Collingwood has made the grand final an extraordinary 42 times at a rate of 3.4 times per ten seasons. Next best is Carlton with 29 grand finals (2.4 per ten seasons).

At the bottom of the table we see that the defunct University never qualified for the grand final, nor have the Giants and Suns.

Grand final win-rate
Making the grand final is a good achievement, but let’s examine how clubs have actually performed on the big stage when it matters most:

Rank Club Made GF Prem RunnerUp GF Win%
1 Brisbane 4 3 1 75%
2 Melbourne 17 12 5 71%
3 Hawthorn 19 13 6 68%
4 Adelaide 3 2 1 67%
5 F’scray/WB 3 2 1 67%
6 Fitzroy 13 8 5 62%
7 West Coast 7 4 3 57%
8 Carlton 29 16 13 55%
9 Essendon 28 9 14 50%
10 Geelong 18 16 9 50%
11 Port Adel. 2 1 1 50%
12 Richmond 23 11 12 48%
13 North Melb. 9 4 5 44%
14 Collingwood 42 15 27 36%
15 Sydney 6 2 4 33%
16 South Melb. 11 3 8 27%
17 St Kilda 7 1 6 14%
18 Fremantle 1 0 1 0%
19 GWS Giants 0 0 0
20 Gold Coast 0 0 0
21 University 0 0 0

Topping the table is Brisbane, but thanks solely to its 2001-2004 dynasty in which it contested four consecutive grand finals, winning the first three. Perhaps more impressive is Melbourne which also boasts an impressive win rate on the big stage, going 12/17 (71%), and Hawthorn are not far behind with 13/19 (68%).

It must be noted that Collingwood, despite a great effort to qualify for the grand final on 42 occasions, has an absolutely horrendous big stage record winning only 15/42 (36%). Yes, bewilderingly, the Magpies have finished 27 seasons as runner-up. I’d be surprised if any other top-tier sports league from around the world has seen a team lose the ultimate clash at such a rate.

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Mason Cox

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/AFL Media/Getty Images)

And the most successful club is…

In each of the ten tables above, clubs have been assigned a ranking position from one to 21. Hence, I have assigned 21 points for a first position, 20 points for a second position, 19 points for a third position and so on.

The grand table below shows the clubs ranked by their total points:

Overall rankings

Rank Club Av. Rank Total Points
1 Carlton 4.40 176
2 Collingwood 4.50 175
3 Essendon 4.60 174
4 West Coast 4.70 173
5 Hawthorn 7.30 147
6 Geelong 7.60 144
7 Richmond 7.70 143
8 Adelaide 7.90 141
9 Sydney 9.20 128
10 Port Adel. 9.20 128
11 Melbourne 9.70 123
12 Fitzroy 10.90 111
13 Brisbane 11.00 99
14 South Melb. 13.00 90
15 North Melb. 13.80 82
16 F’scray/WB 14.40 76
17 Fremantle 15.10 69
18 St Kilda 17.40 46
19 GWS Giants 17.11 44
20 Gold Coast 20.00 20
21 University 20.40 16

The winner is Carlton! Now, this may come as a surprise to some, due to the Blues’ recent lack of on-field success, brought on primarily by the salary-cap scandal of the late 1990s and early 2000s for which it was severely penalised and forced to forfeit player picks across three drafts. A huge set-back that it is only just beginning to recover from.

As a result, it may be easy to forget what a truly successful powerhouse club the Old Navy Blues have been over the journey – the stats don’t lie.

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In second place, Collingwood is left to ponder what may have been. If not for such a poor record in finals, especially grand finals, it would almost certainly sit on top of the table.

Ranked third is Essendon which has obviously always been a very strong club. Like Carlton, the Bombers have been set back by scandals of their own in recent seasons.

West Coast round out the top four and show what a high-achieving club it has been since joining the competition in 1987. Looking at the final table, we can see there is a significant gap between West Coast and fifth-placed Hawthorn.

Towards the less desirable end the table we see that GWS has already surpassed the lowly St Kilda across the key indicators during its brief existence. However, the same can’t be said for fellow expansion club Gold Coast. The Suns and the defunct University really are two poorly performed outliers at the bottom of the table.

So there you have it. Congratulations to Carlton

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